1816 was a miserable year. Known as the Year Without A Summer, global temperatures decreased thanks to a large volcanic eruption, leading to failed crops and famine, and…wait for it…disease.
It was also the year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.
Many of us have heard the story. A group of friends, shut in from the cold, locked away from much of civilization, haunted by their own individual fears and worries and distractions, challenge each other to a ghost story contest.
Here is what Mary writes about that challenge, which eventually led to a nightmare that eventually led to Frankenstein:
I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.
We have officially entered our own Year Without A Spring with the COVID-19 pandemic. The sun may shine, rain may fall, the mayor of LA is THIS CLOSE to mandating hikes. The shelves may be empty but food is being delivered. It is not the desperate darkening of the Earth in the same way as 1816 – but 1816 and 2020 are kindred spirits. People are still dying. People are isolated. People are not supported by the systems we swore were solid weeks before.
There is a general chaos, a general undercurrent vibration of uncertainty and anxiety and fear. If you don’t believe me, spend 5 minutes on Facebook.
There is also a lot of hope and community support. Artists coming together. Creating things. Certainly I’ve seen the story of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Ugh. As if we weren’t under enough pressure already.
And then of course here I am offering up Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein during another deadly year. But I don’t offer up this story as an example of unending production. I don’t want to say, “Hey, this is our chance! Write that Great American Rona Play/Novel!” Just because we are locked in our homes does not mean what we produce must be a novel that transcends 200 years of literary history.
Instead, reread that quote from her introduction. Invention comes out of chaos. It comes out of the moment of change, of wonder, of fear. All you may accomplish right now is a lot of walking around in silence, a lot of nightmares. But that, too, is creation.
I went to a writing residency in 2017 in the month between leaving my day job and going off to grad school. As much as I wanted to, I could not turn off the world. I was in a tailspin of work and change and uncertainty. And I was at a beautiful place where I was supposed to be writing. I did, a little. But my writing to-do list was barely touched. Instead I went on walks, hikes, cried into oysters, had nightmares. I felt lonely. I was alone.
When I talked to others who had been in similar situations, I heard many a story of writers going to residencies and writing little to nothing – only taking the time to sit and breathe and try to remember what it was that was interesting or terrifying or beautiful to them….the thing that led them to writing in the first place.
So I think that’s all we can ask now. Wander around your gothic mansion/studio apartment and indulge in a little ghost story challenge. Gather around the fire and let the nightmares play and dance and then burn out. If something lingers on, maybe you got something.
If you trace the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adaptations just in the last 100 years or so, it is easy to see that the classic story never quite went out of style. It is beyond trend. It is the origin story of our collective unconscious.
LA Theatre Works is bringing its own voice to the cannon this month with its upcoming radio drama production of Frankenstein, adapted by former BBC producer Kate McAll. The audio format allows McAll and LA Theatre Works to get back to the language of the book itself, and offer a version of the story that strips away the visual influences of television and film that have created the pop culture ideas of what we assume Frankenstein to be.
“I like to get to the heart of the original material,” says McAll about her approach to adapting work for the radio. “My adaptation uses Mary’s structure and language. If she saw it – or heard it – she would recognize it.”
McAll, like myself and like many people who consume pop culture, didn’t read the book until she dove into the work of the adaptation, and so her cultural touchstones were mainly based in the movies. When she began talks with LA Theatre Works to do this adaptation, she thought this might be a great opportunity to try something new – last year she adapted A Room With A View which had a lot of comedy in it and made people laugh. This was a moment to do something scary. But when she read it, she completely changed her mind about it.
“I found it to be about something else altogether,” says McAll. “My version of it was not going to be like the classic scary monster thing. Because that’s not what I found in the book.”
What did she find in it? Not the same horror box in which we tend to place the Frankenstein of pop culture. “There are horror moments in it but they are not at all like the movies…The book is surprisingly poetic,” says McAll. “It is very powerfully about loss. It is really about seeing Frankenstein descend into the deepest, most scary depression and obsession after the loss of his mother. As for the Creature, his loss – of a parent of any kind – was the greatest of all.”
That’s the heart of what the story is about for McAll. Grief. And that’s what keeps it so fresh and timeless. It’s this very personal story about grieving, about fighting against death, about abandonment (which grief often feels like), and how different characters deal with this process – for better or for worse.
McAll has been personally coping with grief over the last two years, “so it was quite strange to come to this and find that’s what Frankenstein is about. It’s got immense emotional maturity given that Mary was only 19 years old when she wrote it.”
Connecting the storytelling style in the book to the genre of radio drama has been the structural exploration of this adaptation. “I’ve just let the storytellers tell their stories….in its purest form. I haven’t imposed anything on it, ” says McAll.
The process of adapting Frankenstein and leaning into this kind of oral storytelling tradition reminded McAll of a memory she’d forgotten, a pure enchantment with storytelling before she was old enough to think about a career at the BBC – or any career at all: “It made me think of when I was little…there was a show on the radio called Listen with Mother…My mother was pregnant with my younger sister, so I must have been four. We’d lie down on the floor and I’d curl into her tummy, and we’d drift off together, listening. It was lovely to have that memory back.”
Based in the UK, McAll has come out to the US every year for the last 20 years. Perhaps fittingly for the theme of her current adaptation, the first project she pitched for production in the U.S., a possible adaptation of the book The Blood of Strangers, began with a phone call asking for advice with the actor Martin Jarvis on September 11…2001. The news was only just breaking and she pointed out to Martin, who was in LA at the time and just waking up, that there seemed to be something happening in New York.
And so grief seems to follow us.
“Frankenstein feels very relevant for the times we live in. Many of us are dealing with a kind of political grief. It’s a state of shock,” says McAll. “Grief for how you believed the world was. And as you get older and the losses become more likely, this kind of story just makes you think about it all.”
McAll is a freelance producer, director and writer working mainly for BBC Radio 4, which produces new radio dramas daily. While radio dramas mostly died out in the U.S. with the introduction of television, that didn’t happen in the UK. “Radio stayed. It’s always been strong,” says McAll. “In radio, the most important thing is to keep people listening. There are a million ways they can stop and switch off. You might have 30 seconds when they’ll concentrate. You’ve really got to capture them from the start and hold onto them.”
McAll didn’t always know that her place was in radio drama. “I came from a very working class background where nobody was educated past the age of 16. I remember one day at school, then I was about 9, the teacher said we were going to create a radio drama complete with sound effects – coconut shells for horses hooves and everything…I remember being very fired up at being introduced to this world of imagination. It was different from books. That stayed with me for a long time.”
McAll was the first to go to university in her family. “After I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or could be. I sort of reverted to being this child of a working class family. I couldn’t imagine having a profession. I just didn’t have a template for it in my head.”
She started with a “very very boring job” working as a secretary for the head of engineering at the BBC, but realized Radio 4 was just across the car park. “I smoked at the time, and a lot of the radio producers smoked, so they were the first people I met – in the smoking area! It was as if a light went on. It was so thrilling and exciting,” says McAll. “I managed to find where I was meant to be, figured out how it worked, applied for jobs since I was already in the door, and worked my way up from secretary to a producer in just over a year.”
With her 30 year career in radio documentary and drama, McAll knows the importance of voice actors, and the LA Theatre Works production of Frankenstein is pulling no punches with Stacy Keach in the role of “The Creature” and Adhir Kalyan (Arrested Development) playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “If anybody can tell you a story, Stacy can,” says McAll. Radio acting takes an abundance of talent: “You’ve got to keep people absolutely enchanted with what you’re saying.”
Actors Mike McShane (Whose Line Is It Anyway), LA Theatre Works favorite Darren Richardson, Seamus Dever and Cerris Morgan-Moyer round out the cast; LA Theatre Works associate artistic director Anna Lyse Erikson directs. “Actors who do comedy are really great at drama because they have the timing,” says McAll. “They know exactly how something should be. If you can do comedy, you can do anything.”
Watching live foley, amazing actors, and listening to a classic tale in an LA Theatre Works show is more than enough for a great evening at the theatre, but it is the heart of the story that will stay with anyone listening – the purity of how Mary Shelley describes and explores the idea of birth and death and our own grieving for both moments. “How the Creature describes what it was like for him to come into being is so beautiful and thoughtful,” says McAll. “And if you’re coming to this with the movies in your head, it is so unexpected.”
McAll writes in her introduction to the play how the original novel was birthed from the most primitive and important rituals of human experience – telling stories around a fire to ward off the darkness. “There have been many adaptations of this tale, and it’s a daunting task to present another, but what I have wanted to keep in mind is that this was originally a story told in a single voice, from a young girl’s imagination; that it was born of a waking dream, and recounted in a creaky old mansion, on a dark, cold, rainy, candle lit night.”
Frankenstein runs Friday February 28 – March 1, presented by LA Theatre Works at the James Bridges Theater UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 235 Charles E. Young Drive Los Angeles, CA 90095. Call 310-827-0889 or visit www.latw.org for information and reservations.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
It’s been almost exactly six months since I graduated grad school.
I apologize right now to everyone I have interacted with during this time. I have this thing where, when someone asks how you are, I don’t like saying just “fine” or “good,” especially when that’s not true and especially if the question is sincere. I’ve also been told multiple times that not only are my characters WITHHOLDING, so am I.
So unfortunately, in the spirit of being HOLDING or whatever the hell is the opposite of WITHHOLDING, I’ve tried to articulate this feeling of post-grad uncertainty in a multitude of ways. Often this will manifest in extremes: either totally depressing or completely manic.
There have been people I’ve had long meals with who have witnessed the manic. And I’ve apologized afterwards.
I only just apologized on Friday to a new friend and director I’m working with for being so damn negative the ENTIRE length of the times we’ve hung out.
My emotions live in extremes right now, or at least extremes for me. I’m either riding high and so excited about what’s happening, or my life is an endless desert of capital S Sad and I’ve made all the wrong decisions, every time, for every thing.
Which means I’ve been spending much of my time NOT writing and instead looking at animal videos on Facebook. For a brief period over the last six months, in my desperate attempt at finding a job, I even tried to get a part time job walking dogs or taking care of kittens or cats in shelters, or even starting as an apprentice dog trainer because those seemed at least mildly meaningful comparatively when you consider my other career is writing plays no one comes to or no one wants to produce and writing stories no one wants to publish.
And then Facebook starting advertising this product to me:
The algorithm is getting scary.
Obviously, I know how the algorithm knew how many EXACT seal videos I looked at or shared over the last six months. How may seal GIFs I’ve used.
But did the algorithm read my cover letter to the animal shelter in response to their call for a “Cat Caretaker” that I wrote desperately and passionately into Indeed one night? Or the various descriptions of how my 34-years of having dogs around, of feeding dogs, of having a dog die IN MY ARMS should qualify me to be able to walk a few of them around the block for an hour for minimum wage?
Did the algorithm hear ME calling MYSELF names like fat and lazy and talentless?
Did the algorithm see my whiskey-fueled bedtime crying-myself-to-sleep routine?
Because it’s like looking in the mirror. We’re in some uncanny valley territory here where I could buy a life-size version of myself and cuddle with it (angrily) after a hot toddy.
But, in an attempt to be POSITIVE, it seems the algorithm has solved my problem for me of articulation.
What has post-grad been like, you ask?
This. This right here. This is post-grad. This is my life right now. And, I suspect, this is just being a writer, forever and ever.
I was excited to see your posting for a new [insert job vaguely tangental to my dreams here] and I know I could contribute through many avenues in this position. I have over 10 years of experience working in nonprofit performing arts marketing and administration, two years working with grade school and undergraduate writing education, and am a fiction writer, playwright, and screenwriter who just graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside – so I think this background both in administration and creativity could be an asset to your company.
I guess you want me to explain why? Oh lord, I can’t anymore.
Do you know this is the 200th cover letter I’ve written since July? Jobs, fiction submissions, playwriting submissions, more jobs. And more jobs. I just can’t anymore.
Except I have to. Okay. So. Why? Why should you hire me/give me this opportunity? Why why why…well, I’ve taught in an 8th grade classroom! I’ve taught literature to undergrad science students! I’ve directed actors! I’ve directed MALE actors! I once directed a MALE ACTOR who was ALSO a cardiologist….and I’M A WOMAN! So whatever amount of shit and ego you think you’re going to throw at me, I’ve already been through worse.
[Clearing throat] Anyway.
I’ve worked in small theatres and at universities for over 10 years in Los Angeles, creating marketing plans, branding, graphic design, social media strategy, public relations, website design and upkeep, email campaigns, and building audience for the arts. And I’m tired of it. I really am. I shouldn’t tell you that, but I’ve been having this argument for MORE THAN 10 YEARS – the “WHY should I come see this art show when I could just as easily NOT do that” argument. In the end, there’s one thing I’ve learned about marketing: the BEST way to sell a thing is word of mouth. And to get word of mouth, you have to create something that means something and excites people and that sometimes means taking risks. Which I know you don’t want to because you’re a midsized theatre/corporation/dog walking service and you just want to stick with what you know. Which is cool. Cool cool cool cool.
Sorry. Back on track.
I’ve also organized fundraising events, readings, and new play festivals, so administration, organization, and follow-through are second nature to me. Who is the person that does all the work nobody wants to? Probably me. And remember, when I say I was a “Marketing Director” or “Marketing Manager” what that really means is I did EVERYTHING a team of 10+ people normally would. I’ve left jobs that then replaced me with 6 different people just to function somewhat normally for a while before they hire the 4 other people they need. Did I get paid as if I were a multi-headed goddess of efficiency? No. Probably I was paid like I was half a person who only needed half a room in half an apartment and ate half a burrito while I drove my half car to my second or third job.
I’m off track again. See? I am self-aware and am not afraid to correct course. I’m a self-starter!
I’ve been published! In a few journals that slowly start going defunct. But let’s not talk about that. The New Yorker once gave me a rejection letter when it clearly states on their website that they don’t have time to respond to everyone. So that’s something!
I’ve been produced! But at least one of them was self-produced and the others were with the theater company where I’m an ensemble member so I was also doing marketing and box office and merch and whatever and DEFINITELY CRIED from exhaustion at all the opening nights…And I know I shouldn’t tell you about the self-production stuff. I learned that at a writers conference last year. I was talking with some playwrights about those beautiful exchanges you can have with audience members – and I was telling my story, which began with me selling T-shirts in the lobby before the show. And the playwrights were like…”but why were YOU selling T-shirts.” And that’s when it hit me. Somehow being involved in the production as more than a writer was shameful. Self-producing doesn’t count. I guess? If that’s true then I’m really in the shit hole of my own creation.
Add that to my special skills list!
I hope you don’t look at my resume and think that, just because I seem to have a specific journey of a so-called “career,” that it doesn’t mean I can’t sell books, or walk a dog, or learn how to make a great cup of coffee, or manage your podcast content, or whatever and fucking LOVE it while doing it. But it also doesn’t mean this job is going to be my priority. Sorry to burst your bubble. But to quote Amanda Palmer, I’ve already spent too much time doing things I didn’t want to. I take pride in the work I do, which often leads to me putting the job first before the projects or people I’m passionate about. And enough of that. Will I be a good employee and do the work the best I can? You bet. Will I sign over my soul or promise you this is a career change while also continuing to write on the side and hope that this is all temporary before I’m finally free? Nope.
I’m tired of feeling over-qualified and under-qualified at the same time, all the time.
So interview me and string me along for months. Send me a rejection. Ghost me. Whatever. I’ve got other cover letters to write.
I would love the opportunity to talk with you more about this position. In the meantime, I’m going to try to forget that I sent this to you, because the moment I start really wanting something and throw that energy at it, is the moment I don’t get it.
As a Southern California kid, theme parks have been a part of my identity, for better or worse. Most kids, no matter where you lived, probably got a chance to go to their local carnival, or their local amusement park or one of the thousands of odd ball parks across the U.S., or even made it to Disneyland on a family trip if they were lucky.
So I say theme parks have been part of my identity not as a way to say I’m unique in this, because I’m not. But as a way to think about how someone can absorb not only story but the structure and artifice of story in different ways. There’s a beautiful thing that happens, when you accept the construct of a fake world built on taking your money. And you believe in it anyway. And hard.
You can hear the Disneyland fireworks from my grandmother’s backyard. Back when it was affordable, my mother would take me out of school for mid-week, rainy-day Disneyland trips with our annual passes. My mother was cast as Snow White (though opted to take a job in nursing instead). The place was part of my routine. Being immersed in story was my routine.
Amusement parks are fun and all, but it is theme-parks that have my heart – the ones that tell a story with its immersion, rides, and games, giving the illusion that you are in this world and are part of the story. You are an adventurer, a pirate, a space traveler, a princess. You are part of the story being told. I was never one for thrills for thrill’s sake. I want a thrill because it is part of a story. Don’t just let me drop from a high peak. Tell me why I had to jump and what I have to do to land.
I recently went to Universal Studios Hollywood – which has become a part of my routine as well during this part of my life, as I live about ten minutes away and almost every theatre person I know has worked there, is working there, or is trying to work there. At 33, I’m cynical as hell – I look at the throngs of people with their giant Simpsons donuts and plushies, their Jurassic Park uniforms, their Harry Potter robes and wands and wonder at how silly we all look, dressed up in our respective fantasies. Are we wasting our days? I don’t care how punk rock you are, you are decidedly less badass when you wear your Ravenclaw robes and wait in line for a 2 minute ride on a Hippogriff.
But then I remember – who wants to be a badass anyway, if it means not being able to dream?
I spent considerable time during my day at the park dreaming up what the themed land would look like if I could create the seaside town from one of my plays. In my fiction class last week, I made my students walk around for ten minutes as their characters, experiencing the drab creative writing building through the eyes of someone (or something) else. As writers we spend so much time in our heads, that the physicality of something can sometimes be the key we need to unlock the connection we so desperately want.
Theme parks are crowded, hot, and annoying. They are overpriced, often disappointing, and I know enough from my friends who have worked behind the scenes and from watching endless hours of the Defunctland YouTube channel that the politics and economics behind many of the choices are infuriating, to say the least.
But nothing beats being able to walk through the physical landscape of your chosen fantasy and imagine what your story might be in this place. The best thing I did the last time I visited Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter land of Universal was a fifteen minute conversation with a shop worker at Ollivanders Wand Shop about who I am and what I hope to be in order to fit me with the proper wand. Yes it was $52 and I did not buy it. But I will, dear reader, I will eventually.
Because I’m a sucker.
I watched the new projection/light show in Hogsmeade (twice) – The Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle – and couldn’t help letting my mind wander to the darkness we all fight every day, the real evil stuff we have to combat that is not cloaked in black robes or maniacal laughter. Does a light show fight any of that? Hell no. Does it sorta help me imagine a better, more courageous version of myself that would fight a dark wizard and maybe actual real bad stuff in the world? Yes, a bit. Does it make me wish I was that person and give me something to work for? I think so.
When the shop worker at Ollivanders asked what my favorite subject would have been if I went to Hogwarts, I answered Defense Against the Dark Arts almost immediately. I had never thought about it before that moment, but I knew it instinctively.
And I feel like that is what most of us are doing, in one way or another, as we write. It is a constant training in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Looking for hope wherever we can find it.
Sometimes you spend all weekend writing out a book idea about haunted houses and choose your own adventure books and the meaning of home but then you miss the deadline for the application you were writing it for because you can’t tell the difference between am and pm, apparently.
Sometimes you get big rejections all in a row and your summer is already feeling empty and long and what the hell are you going to do after you graduate from this MFA program anyway?
Sometimes people ask you what are you going to do with your degree? As if the answer isn’t what I always did before, but, like, older.
Sometimes you meet your best friend’s new baby and love her immediately.
Sometimes you finish something. Sometimes you feel as if you’re never going to finish anything. Sometimes you feel as if nobody cares anyway and what are you doing writing about monsters and ghosts and weird shit when there are politics to worry about, real monsters just around the corner.
Sometimes you sit in a room of people you adore talking about creative things and you just want to run out of the room, out to the street, tossing your notebook in the air, the hell with shoes, your bare feet slopping in the puddles along Laurel Canyon Blvd, a street not built for this sort of rain, the endless, all-at-once, confusing Southern California rain that you will miss terribly when it’s gone.
Sometimes you grieve for things years before you have to. Like this moment. And this one.
And this one too.
Sometimes you see the rest of your life spinning out from you, circling back upon itself like a rope tied to an anchor and thrown overboard of a ship, twisting down and around itself on and on, into nothingness and you realize too late that the free end is not tied to anything, and there it goes, your life, twisting down into the water for some dolphins to laugh at.
Sometimes you make scones.
Sometimes you drink too much coffee and don’t sleep enough and your heart feels like it wants to choke you.
Sometimes you write a meandering monologue just to get something out and it suddenly opens up your play, and it doesn’t seem scary anymore. Not anymore.
And then another rejection comes.
Sometimes you buy a typewriter from 1941 off of Craigslist for a project in which you don’t end up using it anyway, but you have always wanted a typewriter so, what the hell. The guy selling it is also a writer – TV, he says – and he’d bought the thing with big plans to write his poetry on it – the romantic poet with his typewriter and coffee and cigarette. But he never used it. And the poetry was never written. And now it’s yours, along with its two unused ribbons. And it scares you, to type on it, because it feels so much more permanent than a computer. If you want a rewrite, you got to type it all, word for word – and it makes you realize that the kind of relationship writers used to have with their words was perhaps different, having to rewrite them over and over. An intimacy we don’t know in the same way these days. The intimacy of old friends. The intimacy of old lovers.
Sometimes you dream of traveling the world with this typewriter, creating a one-woman show with it, building a whole magical event around it that you can take to festivals, perform in grand halls and in elementary school classrooms.
And this, too, has already been grieved for. Remember that time I could dream about traveling the world with this typewriter? Remember when that was a possibility?
Sometimes you think, boy, everyone makes it look so easy.
When I was in France in September for an impromptu trip, I had about two days to spend in Paris. I’d never been there before, I didn’t speak the language, I had a lot of work I knew I’d be flying home to. I was happy and grateful but stressed.
But there was one thing that I felt drawn to, the thing that I couldn’t leave Paris without doing: visiting the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
It felt like a pilgrimage. I’m not a religious person. I probably couldn’t truly articulate what I believe. Energies, maybe. Ghosts. I don’t know. I’m not even a hard-core Oscar Wilde fan. But I needed to go there.
I didn’t bring the right shoes for the amount of walking I’d been doing all week. My feet and legs ached. I got turned around a dozen times just finding the entrance of the cemetery. Once inside, I wandered for a long time, searching for the exact location of the grave. Père Lachaise is well organized but its long winding paths can play tricks on you. I could feel every cobble stone under my shoes. It was cold and I was hungry and I felt like I’d never find him.
Obviously people make this trek all the time. I am not unique. Roses and gifts littered his grave. Lipstick marks covered the protective glass installed around the huge grave stone to combat graffiti from adoring fans. Tourists from England and Sweden and Germany paraded by in the half hour or so I spent there, sitting on the curb across the path from the grave. I felt almost embarrassed that I didn’t have a flower to offer. He probably hated that.
Instead, I sat there and asked him questions.
How did you do it? How did you have the confidence?
I thought about the tragic way his life was cut short. And felt silly for asking him anything, since anything I had experienced is nothing compared to his life. But still, I admitted to him, that while I don’t deserve it, I’d sure like this advice.
Can I do this? This writer thing?
I feel silly saying I did this. But it was a pilgrimage to connect to something deeper, some sort of literary history, to figure out if I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing, for wanting what I think I want.
I think it is important to find stillness and ask these questions. To a god, to a literary giant, to someone you’ve lost, to yourself. You’ll get an answer if you ask the question. It may not come in the form of words and a life plan, but in the form of a warmness, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, a sudden lightness in your breathe, in your step.
I made my way out of the cemetery, but it wasn’t easy. I was pretty convinced the ghosts wanted to try to keep me there, confusing me, sending me down more painful cobblestone paths to drain me. But then I found the opening.
I spent the rest of the night wandering more streets, eating cheese, reading, and drinking hot chocolate. And felt like myself. And at peace with that feeling.
We’re getting close to the new year. I’m watching friends and family achieve things, get married, have babies, buy houses. Lovely choices and happiness in so many forms. Seeing others’ choice can sometimes make you question your own. So make your own pilgrimage. Maybe not to Oscar Wilde’s grave (if you do, bring shoes that can deal with those cobblestones) but to a place with the energy that will help you focus and ask that question that’s burning in your mind.
This is may be a trick. I’ve been tricking myself all summer long into thinking I had to accomplish a certain amount of writing work in order to call this arbitrary three months a success.
I usually don’t put so much pressure on summer specifically (on myself, yes, all the time) but this is the first summer I’ve had “off” since undergrad. This is the summer between my first and last year of grad school – a summer where my freelance work, my writing life, and my general mental health was all up in the air. So my list of projects to “finish” grew and grew.
What does this have to do with endings?
As I playwright, I feel like I’ve generally got a knack for endings and for striking images at the beginning. It’s, of course, the middle part that gets muddy.
I love writing endings. I usually know exactly where I want things to go, or at least the emotional weight or the image that a play needs to land on. It might end up shifting around, but when I start something, that ending is already a glimmering oracle on the horizon.
So this is why my summer got messed up. I had a beautiful ending planned: finish this play, rewrite that one, write that screenplay, finish that novel, write this short screenplay, finish the short story collection…I have ALL summer, so what’s wrong with that ending?
The problem is really that it is a false ending. That summer and your writing life doesn’t follow a three act structure and sometimes you have to build self-care time into things (which is not interesting to watch) and you have to put in the hard work and the starts and stops and frustrations. You have to really factor in how much TIME all this stuff takes. None of which is fodder for dramatic entertainment. But all of which is life.
My summer started when the production of my play Wood Boy Dog Fish ended on June 24.
Then I slept for a couple weeks. I felt lost. The constant panic in my chest had gone and it had been replaced with dread.
Then I went to the Sewanee Conference in Tennessee for two weeks as a Playwright Fellow. Met some amazing people I hope will continue to be friends throughout our careers. Then I drove around for five days by myself and experienced the weirdness of Tennessee.
Panicked that I hadn’t finished my long list of writing.
And now, as I’m writing this, I am waiting at LAX to fly to France – surprise! Not something I had planned on. A twist ending. A short puppet play of mine is a finalist for the UNIMA call for young writers, and they invited the finalists to come to Charleville-Mézières, France for a paper theatre workshop, a reading, and the award ceremony. So I said…sure. Let’s go.
Because sometimes twists just show themselves and you end up following that path you didn’t see until it was right there.
When I fly back on September 25, my second year of grad school will start two days later and my summer will officially be over. This summer “play” (re:my life) began in bed sleeping off the hangover of the past 9 months, and staring at fire flies in southern humidity. It will end in Paris. It doesn’t actually make any sense. This play would be ripped apart in workshop.
But its a false ending. Because nothing is over. The summer is just three months. And things happen in the time they happen, and when you force a something (a play, a life) to work in a way it is just not capable of working, you’ll get stuck, staring at the page. And crying. And eating too much cheese.
I intend to eat quite a bit of cheese in France.
And as far as endings go, even false ones – that’s not too bad.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Here’s the thing. We all want our plays to mean something. In political times like these (or, if we’re being real, at just about any political time ever), the writer stands at the precipice of a canyon of noise and anger and disruption. And we think – how can I possibly make a blip in this mess?
As both a marketing person and a playwright, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people about why a play is “relevant” – and more than that, why theatre is “relevant” – and why they should spend this amount of money and this amount of time buying into a false reality and be moved in some way, to be challenged or questioned.
It is exhausting.
In our struggle to be “relevant” (a word I might actually despise right now) – we playwrights sometimes produce “message” plays – plays that tend to hit on a topical conversation (gay marriage, terrorism, gun control, abortion) but not only hit on it, hit it right on the damn nose. There’s usually a moment when the playwright-thinly-veiled-as-a-character has a speech that describes why their view on the topic is the correct one. We all have one of these plays because the topic is important to us, because we are trying to be heard above the noise, because goddamnit, art can mean something.
The problem with message plays is that they tend to preach to the choir. My opinion is not going to be changed because you deliver a monologue in my direction. Chances are, if I’m in the audience of your message play, I already agree with you. It’s the algorithm. It is everywhere.
But, I will question my point of view if you give me characters I can relate to and love, a situation that is relatable or complicated and tense, and a slice of humanity that perhaps I had never considered before. Show me the grey area I’ve been ignoring. I might not change my opinion, but perhaps now I can see through the clutter and the postulating, all the way to the person on the other side.
Theatre has to work harder, to be more than a Facebook or Twitter argument. Give me a message, but dip it in character and setting and poetry and beauty and darkness and comedy first. Coat it on thick, pull all the threads together, and make me swallow it with a smile on my face or ugly tears in my eyes. And I will digest that message over the next day or week or months or years – I will feel it there, even if the words don’t come right away.
I don’t want a thesis statement. I don’t want to be able to describe in a sentence what your play was about after I’ve walked out. Make me feel it, show me what its about. Audiences are smarter than you think. Make them work. Even when they are being entertained, put them to work. This is not a passive art. It is not a passive life. We cannot be passive.
Here’s the thing. There are plenty of people out there who say that art is irrelevant (and plenty of those people are in power right now), or that they don’t take meaning from art and that art is not there to mean something. But art always means something, even if you don’t realize what it is telling you. We consume stories and art constantly, even if we never step foot in a theatre.
So I suppose all plays are message plays. But it is how we choose to frame it that makes the difference. Take your message and frame it in different ways. See what life it takes on.
We cannot measure our worth as writers based on the number of minds that are changed after two hours of the theatre. Minds are far too stubborn. Instead, we should challenge ourselves to let our hearts explode onto the page and the stage, and hope somehow, somewhere, a shard of the heart lodges into another person, and you are intrinsically linked for the rest of your lives.
The world is changed by marches and strikes and wars and protests and hitting the pavement, but also by one shard of one heart in one stranger.
Here’s the thing. It is exhausting. It is indescribably messy.